On the 29th May 1453 the last emperor of Byzantium fell in battle at Constantinople. Emperor Constantine Paleologus had been fighting the Turkish army led by Mehmet the Conqueror and his death marked the end of an ancient Royal Dynasty, of an empire that had lasted a thousand years and it forced his surviving family to flee to Italy. Today, through some strange twists and turns of fate, the mortal remains of one of Constantine’s descendants, a man who could once have laid claim to the title of Emperor, lie in a quiet church not far from the banks of the Tamar River. So who was Theodore Paleologus and how did his path lead him to Cornwall?
Inside Landulph Church
It took me three years and several failed attempts to get inside Landulph church and when I did eventually manage it a few weeks ago it was simply by chance. I had made the trip up on a Sunday thinking that that might be my best chance of finding the church open but after again being faced with a locked door I was walking away disheartened when I saw an elderly man in his garden. I stopped to speak and to my delight he told me that he was one of the churchwardens and immediately offered to let me inside!
After my new friend had removed the padlock for me I was at last able to push the door open to the heavy metallic clunk of the ancient latch.
I was so excited to finally be there . . .
Landulph was founded originally as a monastic settlement. It may seem like a backwater these days but for a time in the 15th and 16th centuries it, like its near neighbours Saltash and Cargreen, was a trading port with its own fleet of ships. From here vessels ladened with cured fish and refined tin sailed to destinations far and wide. But Landulph has never been a big place, never at in the centre of events, so how had the man that had brought me here, Theodore Paleologus, come to be buried inside this unassuming Cornish church?
The Early Life of Theodore Paleologus
After the death of Emperor Constantine the Paleologus family were scattered but it is thought that his younger brother Thomas settled with his family in Pesaro, a city on the Adriatic coast of Italy. Thomas had sons and those sons had sons and so on until we reach his great, great grandson Theodore. Theodore Paleologus was born in c1562, the son of Camilio Paleologus.
Very little is known about his early life, even his mother’s name has been lost. But there is one shocking story that is said to explain why Theodore left the safety of his family home in Italy never to return. He apparently became involved in a plot to commit murder . . .
Original 16th century documents still held in Pesaro show that in 1578 Theodore was charged and found guilty, along with his uncles Scipione and Leonidas Paleologus, of attempting to murder a man called Leone Ramusciatti. It is unclear why the man was targeted but there is some suggestion that this was not the first murder that the trio had been implicated in.
Ramusciatti survived however and was able to tell authorities who his attackers had been.
The Paleologus men attempted to escape Pesaro but didn’t get far and ended up barricading themselves inside a church. They were eventually arrested and Leonidas was executed for the crime. The fate of Scipione isn’t recorded but it likely that he received the same punishment. Theodore on the other hand was still considered a underage – he was said to be around 16 or 17 years old at the time of his arrest – so, instead of a death sentence, he was banished from Pesaro forever.
Mercenary & Assassin
For the nearly 20 years between his exile and his arrival in England in 1597 Theodore is a shadow. We know practically nothing about his life. And for good reason if the rumours are to be believed. In 1593 however we know that he married Eudoxia Comnena who was said to be from another Byzantine Imperial family. The couple had one child, a daughter they named Theodora, but their happiness was short lived because Eudoxia died in 1596.
In the 1580s and 1590s Theodore is said to have spent some time in the Netherlands as a mercenary fighting for the Protestants during the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule. But he was also quietly honing his skills as an assassin, a murderer for hire. By the time he was about 40 years old Theodore was described as a “seasoned killer.”
Amazingly a letter from someone requiring his services still survives:
“Very Magnificent Signor,
I have heard with much pleasure that you keep me in your remembrance as I do you, and to show my confidence in you I take the opportunity of employing you in my affairs. By the bearer of this you will be informed what it is that I require, and I beg and request that you will place entire confidence in him. I on my part shall not be ungrateful for besides the usual reward of your work I think of securing you a pension.”Letter addressed to Signor Teodoro Paleologo dated 1597, signed by the senior magistrate of Lucca, Francesco Andreotti,
The letter writer, Francesco Andreotti, is said to have hired Theodore to assassinate Alessandro Antelminelli, a young man from Lucca in Italy who, along with other members of his family, had been charged with treason. Alessandro had apparently fled to England and Theodore tracked him there. He was unable to complete his task however as his target had done an excellent job of vanishing into thin air.
Now finding himself at a loose end in the UK Theodore quickly acquired friends in high places – admirers of his military experience, his imperial ancestry and his blood-thirsty skill set.
The Road to Cornwall
In roughly 1599 Theodore moved into Tattershall Castle, the home of Henry Clinton, the Earl of Lincoln. He is described as a “Rider” for the Earl and although we know that he was an excellent horseman it is more likely that Clinton hired him for his other more nefarious qualities. At that time the Earl was said to be “one of the most brutal, feared and hated feudal lords in Britain” and it is likely that Theodore became his muscle. A letter written in May 1600 refers to an “Italian murderer” as part of Clinton’s household and this is assumed to be Paleologus.
Around this time Theodore met and married his second wife Mary Balls and during their time in Lincolnshire the couple had at least five children – Theodore Jnr, John, Ferdinand, Dorothy and Mary.
By 1616 Henry Clinton was dead and Theodore, now roughly fifty years old, found himself unemployed. Somehow he and his family end up living in Plymouth for a time and it appears that the Paleologus’ were struggling financially, even claiming poor relief. In 1627 Theodore is said to have written to the Duke of Buckingham begging, even at his advanced age, to be taken into service as a soldier for the king. It is unclear what the Duke’s reply was but by 1628 Theodore and his family are living at Clifton Hall in Landulph on the Cornish side of the Tamar. Theodore it seems was employed by Sir Nicholas Lower to teach history and the classics to his wife Elizabeth, born a Killigrew, and their children.
Theodore was often described as good company, and while he was intelligent and well-educated it seems likely that he would also have had many fascinating anecdotes to tell about his life that would have entertained the Lower family and their guests. His illustrious heritage would have been a novelty too.
Burial & Unburial in Landulph
Theodore Paleologus died in 1636. Unfortunately the exact date is unknown due to human error, lost documents and calendar changes! The brass plaque on the church wall, placed close to where his coffin was interned, gives the date of his death as 21st January 1636. The original parish registers for that year have been lost but a hand written replica in the archives of Exeter Cathedral records the date of his burial as 20th October 1636.
It is highly unlikely that Theodore would have remain unburied for 10 months, but just to add even more confusion prior to 1752 Lady Day, the 25th March, was considered the first day of the year, meaning that he may have been buried in October 1635 not 1636. Whatever the case may be either the plaque is wrong or the register is incorrect.
And unfortunately after his burial beneath the floor of Landulph church Theodore did not exactly rest in peace.
In 1795 the Paleologus vault was “accidently” broken into. Theodore’s oak coffin was opened and his remains were observed to be unusually well preserved. No painting of the man survives, if there ever was one, but from the description of his body we can get an idea of what he may have looked like. Apparently he was above average height with a long, oval face and an aquiline nose (similar to his 2x and 3x great grandfathers pictured above perhaps) and had a long white beard down to his chest.
Sadly this was not the end of the intrusions.
Some thirty years later in 1828 the provisional government of the then newly liberated Greece sent a delegation to England to determine whether any living relatives of the Paleologus family could be found. They were looking for a member of the imperial family to place upon the Greek throne. The delegation came to Landulph and although they were unable to find any living candidates according to the Royal Cornwall Gazette they had Theodore Paleologus’ grave opened so that “he could be viewed.”
“Lifted from its quiet resting place in the parish church the coffin of Theodore Paleologus showed a skeleton of prodigious size, embedded in quick lime with its feet turned to the east.”
(Apparently being buried with your feet facing east was a tradition of the Byzantium royal family.)
Another Royal Visitor
In the summer of 1962 Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were on tour in Cornwall and for the first time in its history Landulph was treated to a visit by a reigning monarch. Although the newspapers at the time don’t mention why this out of the way church was chosen it seems plausible that Philip, as a member of the Greek royal family, would have been particularly interested in seeing the final resting place of one of the last of the Byzantium Imperial line.
It has long been thought that Theodore Paleologus’ family line ended with the death of his children but there is a faint possibility that there are a few Cornish descendants out there completely oblivious of their auspicious heritage.
Of Theodore and Mary’s five children Theodore Jnr died fighting for the Parliamentarians in 1644 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, he left no children. Mary died unmarried and John, who fought on the Royalist side in the Civil War, left in England 1644 to be with his brother, Ferdinand who was living in Barbados. John’s fate is unclear, it seems he too died young, but Ferdinand is thought to have had one son named Theodore. And after him this line too dies out.
Back in Cornwall however the last daughter, Dorothy Paleologus, married William Arundell in Landulph Church in 1656. The couple are known to have settled in St Dominic, a small village near Callington, but according to Lake’s Parochial History of Cornwall the parish registers that would have contained any record of their children were accidently destroyed.
Although it is impossible to know whether Dorothy and William had children a local historian, Jago Vyvyan, wrote in 1817 that it was probable that they did. He believed that a woman called Mary Arundel, who married a man by the name of Francis Lee some years after Dorothy and William had died, was actually their daughter.
So, could it be that descendants of the Paleologus family, the last rulers of Byzantium are still living in Cornwall? What an exciting thought!